As rising rivers and waterways threaten to cut off most routes into Horry County — which includes both partly flooded Conway and tourist mecca Myrtle Beach — the area's congressman is renewing the call for an interstate connection there.
The remnants of Hurricane Florence dumped historic amounts of rain in and around Horry, the Pee Dee region and adjacent North Carolina. Now all that water needs a place to go and as it slowly drains toward Winyah Bay in Georgetown, several important roads connecting Horry to the rest of the state have flooded or may flood soon.
For U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, the road closures are just the latest point in favor of Interstate 73, which would connect the Grand Strand to Interstate 95. It's been a longtime wish for the influential tourism industry, in part because most Grand Strand visitors arrive by car.
Currently, the flooding situation is so dire that the S.C. Department of Transportation is trying to keep the rising Waccamaw River at bay with thousand-pound sandbags along one route between Conway and Myrtle Beach.
"We need some infrastructure, we need it terribly, we need it 50 years ago and it's ridiculous we’re trying to do it right now (with sandbags)," Rice told The Post and Courier.
Road opponents doubt the new route would be a fix and may end up underwater, too.
"I-95, which is one of the nation's major interstates, is completely flooded and remains flooded," Erin Pate of the Coastal Conservation League said. "I don't know how I-73 could be any different or how I-73 could be immune to that. It's going to be an impervious surface running through a swampy area."
Proponents of I-73 argue it's an important evacuation route if a hurricane approaches during the height of tourism season, when the daily population along the coast can swell to hundreds of thousands of people. Every year, about 18 million people visit the Grand Strand, according to estimates from the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
"It's ridiculous that rivers swelling could trap hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people," Rice said.
He argued I-73 would be engineered to more recent standards than I-95, which was built decades ago. The north-south East Coast route is currently flooded and impassable just south of the North Carolina line.
Pate, whose group has challenged the federal permits for I-73, said it's impossible to know whether the route would flood, partly because events like Florence are so extreme.
"If you look at maps ... from the Pee Dee area (around the route), there are a lot of road closures and concerns and a lot of flooding," she said.
Horry County's unique geography is part of the problem. It's bordered by the North Carolina state line, the Atlantic Ocean, and a river system that includes the Lumber, Little Pee Dee, Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers.
Those rivers already have closed roads around the county and threaten to swamp important routes near the county line as well as between Myrtle Beach and Conway, particularly U.S. Highway 501, state transportation officials say.
"We’ve always been called the 'Independent Republic of Horry' because we’re isolated by the rivers," County Councilman Johnny Vaught said Tuesday. "Well, this is about to get real."